It’s notable that only at the end of his book Nothing Ever Just Disappears: Seven Hidden Queer Histories does Diarmuid Hester acknowledge that the text and his journey to write it have been a pilgrimage all along. It brings to mind a quote attributed to John Bunyan, author of The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678), historically one of the most influential texts about spiritual wanderings: “It is always hard to see the purpose in wilderness wanderings until after they are over.”
When the book starts, it claims an entirely different sense of its purpose — to understand “the elusive interconnections between queer sexuality and certain places.” In the introduction, Hester references the work of sociologist Japonica Brown-Saracino and her fascinating book, How Place Makes Us: Novel LBQ Identities in Four Small Cities, which dives deeply into how her subjects’ queer identities shift when they move from one city to another, a provocative finding in US society in particular, where our attachments to identity can be quite fixed and queerness is often seen to be primarily shaped internally.
That said, there are hints early on that some deeper longing is at play in the text. When Hester visits the late Derek Jarman’s former cottage on a windswept outcropping of rock and scrubby vegetation along the southeast coast of England, he acknowledges that it functions as “a kind of secular shrine.” Making my way through the book, it felt like a literary walking tour across carefully selected corners of queer history. Over the pages, we roam from E. M. Forster’s contained life amid the stone walls and private gardens of Cambridge, England, to a cacophony of suffragettes taking the streets and sitting rooms of London, Josephine Baker’s arrival and ascendance in Paris, Claude Cahun rooting herself on the craggy island of Jersey off the northwest coast of France, James Baldwin’s final home in the French countryside, Jack Smith mashing his way through New York City, and finally, Kevin Killian’s embrace of and by San Francisco.
At the start of the tour, anticipation and desire palpate as Hester makes his way by bike and on foot to an obscure corner of King’s College, Cambridge. You can imagine a dewy layer of sweat on his body as he climbs the last few stairs to the room where writer E. M. Forster dreamed up queer worlds. And then, as the door opens, he confronts an “unflattering fluorescent glare revealing an unremarkable room with municipal white walls.” In a moment of camp pique, Hester asserts his disappointment by referencing actress Vivien Leigh throwing herself around a room while playing Blanche DuBois in the 1951 film adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ play A Streetcar Named Desire.
The hope to walk into the past, or at the very least to touch some small sliver of it; to find a bit of ephemera held by a favorite fairy, queen, or dyke; to run your fingers along it, breathe it in, and if no one else is around, to pass it across your lips or over your skin, is extraordinarily relatable — at least to this queer. To claim a kinship, erotic, familial, or otherwise, is an impulse I have felt keenly myself and witnessed countless times in others as I’ve worked on queer history projects and spent hours as a volunteer welcoming people into the Lesbian Herstory Archives. I don’t think this impulse is unique to queer people, but the deep sense of lack, from historical gaslighting, from the precarity and necessary elusiveness of so many who love and live queerly, makes the searching and the finding so much more charged.
That simultaneous yearning and recognition is never so clear as in the final chapter of Hester’s book, which feels like a kind of love letter to the author Kevin Killian. Rather than inducing a sense that San Francisco shaped Killian, it instead suggests that Killian helped shape the city. In the final interlude, Hester speaks of the poet bringing young writers to the cemetery where he himself would be interred after his death in 2019. Killian did this in order to connect visitors with Jack Spicer, a writer he admired and whose work he hoped to preserve through these introductions. At the end of the chapter, Hester brings us into the columbarium where both Spicer and Killian’s ashes are held, a parallel gesture of love and devotion that speaks to Hester’s larger project of wandering as a form of connecting. That moment evokes another poignant thought, this time from Jack Halberstam’s The Queer Art of Failure: “the goal is to lose one’s way, and indeed to be prepared to lose more than one’s way.”
Nothing Ever Just Disappears: Seven Hidden Queer Histories by Diarmuid Hester, published by Pegasus Books, is available online and in bookstores.